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Cricket in Ukraine hopes to survive like Afghanistan's did

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For the last three years, Kobus Olivier has been pleading with the world to take notice of the game in the East European country. Few were interested until the other day, since when, the CEO of the Ukraine Cricket Federation (UCF) has been bombarded with calls from media outlets. "In every negative, there is a positive, I guess," he quips rather sarcastically. "(It) would have been nice to talk in peaceful circumstances. It is what it is."

The calls have been to get the latest from the war-hit nation and other aspects. "People would have never known that cricket does exist in Ukraine. Now, Ukraine cricket is on the world map, if I can say that." Olivier can't escape the harsh irony there. He told Cricbuzz to hurry up with the interview before the internet gets shut.

Based in an apartment in Kyiv, Olivier has been hearing quivering noises of the explosions in the neighbourhood and the likelihood of the Russian troops striding into the capital city. "What I know is that the Russian troops are 20 minutes away from Kyiv. They are coming in, apparently, in hundreds of military vehicles through the Belarus border."

A huge building in the city has already been hit, the pictures of which he has already seen. The first thing he heard about on Friday (February 25) morning was a Ukrainian fighter jet being shot down right there. "Quite scary times I must say."

The cricket community there has been hit incredibly hard, understandably too. Kharkiv, another city in the country, is the epicentre of cricket in Ukraine. Not so luckily for the community, it is also the epicentre of Russian aggression. It is where UCF president Hardeep Singh stays and most of the cricketers are Indian medical students. "Kharkiv has been devastated; it is one of the major military bases of the country. Right through the night, they have been shelled," he informs.

Olivier got in contact with a cricketer in Kharkiv and was shocked to hear the developments. The people were told to evacuate their apartments and move to an underground station. "He went underground, hiding with hundreds of others."

Cricket has currently been paused, not because of the conflict but due to the season. The winters in Ukraine tend to bite with the temperature often plummeting to -20 degrees. "Everything is covered in snow. A few guys knock around indoors. But officially we don't run cricket in the winters. I do my cricket programmes in the schools, and they are indoors invariably," he says.

This winter, however, was eventful. The UCF submitted its application for associate membership to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and it is quite hopeful. "December was our deadline, we have met all the criteria. We are working with the ICC regional office in London. Fingers crossed, we could become an associate member of the ICC in July. At this stage, nobody knows what the future holds for us." He meant literally.

Cricket in Ukraine starts with pre-season programmes once the summer sets in in May. The leagues are played in June, July and August. "We play our tournaments every weekend. We have a few beautiful grounds, our flagship ground is in Kharkiv. The game has also spread to three other cities," he elaborates. There are about 400-500 senior cricketers (they can't accommodate more) who play in the leagues regularly. The junior programme, with about 2000, is much more widespread. The youngsters play the game in schools normally, like they play football or basketball. According to Olivier, cricket is part of the curriculum in 10 schools.

There is numerological gender inequality in Ukraine, with more women than men. "For every three girls, there is one boy. You find in every class there are 12 girls and seven boys. In all my classes too, there are more girls than boys. The girls actually are fantastic, they are natural sportspeople. From a very young age they take ballet dancing and gymnastic classes. They have incredibly good hand-eye coordination. We are focussing very much on them. We are confident we will do incredibly well with our women cricket at the world stage."

The war has made the future uncertain but the optimist in Olivier draws a parallel from the Afghanistan situation. "At the moment, it is scary but I keep following Afghanistan cricket, which is very fascinating and inspiring. In a country of war, turmoil and with the Taliban around, they persisted with cricket and the game has survived. We are not yet there where Afghanistan is, but it makes me more positive. Despite what has happened there over the years, they kept on playing cricket, doing incredibly well.

"At some stage, life has to return to normal, children will have to go back to school and students will have to go back to the universities. I absolutely believe once things settle here we will continue as before. The kids will be playing cricket in their schools. We don't know if it will be under the Russian regime but daily life will continue. I am very optimistic that our cricket will keep growing. I just pray that the UCF becomes a member of the ICC. It will change everything. We will get funding, more sponsors will come our way." Just last week, the UCF signed up with Turkish Airlines as its sponsor. "We are already beginning to go in the right direction, you see."

Olivier's arrival in Kyiv three years back gave a boost to cricket in the country and raised hopes of an ICC membership. Things have taken an unexpected turn after the Russian attack. Many have left Ukraine and but Olivier (62), a professional cricketer from South Africa, who was also associated with the game in Kenya and UAE, has no such plans. "I am not going anywhere," he asserts. "I get up every morning to go to my cricket sessions. I owe it to Hardeep, the president of the UCF, and Shyam Bhatia, the patron. I can't let them down. I can't let Ukraine down either, war or peace."

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